Category Archives: Life Lessons

A Difference Between the Top 10% and the Rest

I saw recently that one of my favorite business authors, Michael Lewis, was promoting the 25th anniversary of his first bestselling book, Liars Poker. In the interview with Stephen Colbert of the Colbert report, they listed off Lewis’ other bestselling novels. That simple “s” on the end of the word “novel” is interesting to me. How does someone get to a level of excellent production, and then stay there? How does someone keep churning out material that people want to read? All marketing and PR efforts aside, I’m curious about the nature of an individual as it relates to the quality of their work, and in this case specifically “work” should mean the “body of work,” not just one successfully published work.

On Monday, I came across an article about the principles of Warren Buffett who, not coincidentally, has had an equal streak of success over the past 25 years in his field, and finds his place not just in the top 10% of performers, but in the top 1%. (You can start making some snide jokes about him being in the top 1% but did you know that he’s a huge philanthropist? article: “Buffett Donates $2.8 Billion, Breaks Personal Giving Record”).

So this article is in a reference to a principle that Buffett has kept central to his life, and explains how he communicated this to his personal jet pilot, Mike Flint:

“Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

. . . To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.” (source:”

Seems pretty harsh right? Either focus on those five goals or forget about it all together. Either you’re fully focused on what you want, or you’re not. Reminds me of the quote from Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption:

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

This principle is seen in modern day sports with the disappearance of the dual-sport and three-sport athletes that once existed in history. It was not uncommon 30-40 years ago for an individual to be a star in two or three sports in high school, and possibly do two sports in college. The rare exception then were those who did it in the professional leagues, but this is almost unheard of today. It simply isn’t possible to compete at that professional level given that other athletes are wholly dedicated to a single sport, not to mention the time involved in preparing for that sport on a day to day basis and the wear and tear incurred on the body during the

I remember some parents of friends of mine that would shuttle their children around from practice to other practice and fill their weekends full of physical activity. Now, I think that is good for a child, and still possible for someone in recreational leagues and local community events, but the possibility from both a performance and a feasibility standpoint dramatically declines as the competition increases. We haven’t even addressed where academics fits into all of it.

So if this unadulterated focus toward a single sport might help to explain how people get to the top 10%, but how exactly do people bridge the gap between the 90% and the 10%? How do people improve year over year, stay disciplined and motivated, evade injuries and life-altering decisions, and arrive and stay at peak performance.

The answer, like many responses to great questions, is multifaceted and still mysterious, but
there have been some books that have sought to answer it. One is Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell, famous for saying that it takes about 10,000 hours to get to “expert” status, and as you have seen here on my blog, I think a better, more practical guide is the book that I’m a huge fan of: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” by Cal Newport.

In Newport’s book, he expands on Gladwell’s notion on “deliberate practice,” which is continually focusing on improving the weaknesses that will lead to higher probabilities of success, and how to integrate it into a daily routine. He also outlines how to keep focus, concentration and work intensity paramount in the quest for improvement in a given discipline. I have found some of his most salient advice of “No distractions, period.” to be extremely helpful when I work on translation projects or writing pieces. There simply are no workarounds to good work.

So let me turn back to Warren Buffett’s comment to his pilot Mike Flint. I think this is an example of the “No distractions, period.” lesson in a case study from real life. I think we all get that and we all nod our heads in agreement, we’ll say, “That’s good and true about making the top 5 goals a reality, I’m totally in favor of that.” But if you read in the article, Warren Buffett shows a bit of his discipline fanatic side when he responds to Flint. He says it’s not just the principle that’s important, it’s the decision, or rather, the emotional decision that counts.

It’s not enough to agree internally, or even say you agree verbally, but to really make any sort of change you must be willing to cut out what stands in conflict to those goals. That is a far more difficult decision to make than whether to open your mouth and utter the words, “Ok, got it. Just five goals. Totally understood.” Emotional decisions are tough, they are probably tougher to make because we’re not facing visible, tangible choices; we’re trying to choose between things we care bout immensely, things that are related to our life goals, our family, our friends, those we love. Those are the things that pull on the heart strings, the things that keep us awake at night because of adult-laden regret or child-like excitement.

I think the point of Buffett’s comment and the gist of this blog post is that what separates the top 10% from the rest, is not simply their discipline to stick to a schedule, but their tenacity to say no to a bunch of good things to focus on a great thing, a thing that makes a life instead of one that fills a day. That is hard. Actually, it’s really hard. There’s no way around it. It’s something I’ve come to realize over the past few years, that the difference between the 10% and the rest, is not just 90 points on a standard scale, it’s 90 marks on an exponential swing.

It isn’t a ladder at all, it’s a mountain that has to be climbed. If you want to make it to the summit you’ve got to pack your bag with only what’s necessary, and nothing more. Because what you put in your pack will either slow you down or help you get to the top.


Do Not Compromise

I think some of the most popular advice people get is “Don’t give up!” but sometimes that can be slightly misguided right? Certainly there are some circumstances where it’s better to walk away like if a situation or a person compromises your values. That’s not called giving up, that’s actually labeled “not giving in” and can be just as hard or harder than not giving up.

This is another principle that I’ve seen exemplified in some of the writers and some colleagues that I’ve really come to admire. It’s the practice of a belief that something is so valuable that anything that comes anywhere close to tarnishing or damaging it should not just be avoided, but eliminated. I read about some famous writing schedules that impressed me:

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. . . .

You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that.     -Maya Angelou

I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head.

So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.
-Barbara Kingsolver

One clear trend in all of these is that they have a daily writing schedule, that is deliberate and fixed. They do not compromise it. The thought of breaking rank or going AWOL does not enter their mind. They know that the work that they want to do, the good and the great work they must do, cannot be up for negotiation. It must not be left to chance. It is proper and just and right, and for that, it must be respected and planned out.

I love that in each of these there is a certain place that they do their writing. It’s as if that place becomes sacred. Nothing else must be done here unless it is for the purpose of which this place was designed. That’s quite remarkable isn’t it? Creating a specific and deliberate space. I want that.

But it certainly isn’t easy to set out the time and the place to do this! As much as we are creatures of habit it really is difficult to create new ones, or change bad ones. That’s why I’m continually amazed when I read about people’s daily schedules, and how they’ve done it day after day and year after year.

I want to be a non-compromiser when it comes to the good and true things.

Less is More

Have you thought about what really makes you happy? I mean, really makes you happy. I read a blog post some time ago where the author said that one way to find this you have to think about what is the perfect day to you. What happens in that day where everything goes right? You wake up feeling rested. You eat your favorite breakfast. Play some good songs. The sun is shining. You take a walk with a friend, or your dog. You meet some friends for lunch. You hike a trail, or go to the river, or go for a drive. You try some wine, or some beer, or you go to a baseball game.

I suppose your list looks a bit like that or something similar. What I find interesting about this exercise is that the list in itself is never complex. It’s composed of really simple things, and oddly enough, they aren’t very expensive. Then why, is happiness so expensive? Why do we buy so much? Or maybe a better question is, “Why do we buy so much but never really use what we buy nor remember what we bought?”less-is-more-dominican-baseball-july-2014

I think the point is clear, if you can’t remember how, when, or what really makes you happy then it probably isn’t a source of happiness.

Being in the Dominican Republic for me is a reminder of how easy it is to be happy without having to spend much at all. What made me happy were the times with friends, the laughter, the music, the small trips, the conversations with locals, being outside, walking around in beautiful areas, finding local fields to play with neighborhood kids. These are all elements of experience that costs so little, just some time and some up-front planning.

What I also realize is that if I spend my money on things not only do I have less money, but I have less time to do other things, and less space for the things I want. This may sound painfully obvious, but it’s really a change in perspective. To do things that make you happy you’ve got to stop doing the things that prevent you from being happy.

Doing less, buying less, occupying less is really more.

The joy of buying less, keeping less, owning less.

That’s Like Two or Three Taxi Rides

He was obviously distraught. He kept checking the compartment below the stereo receiver and spread out the CD’s on the front seat. He pulls out old receipts from the visor up above, sorts through them. Still nothing. I’m his passenger, but he’s more concerned about finding something he’s lost. He drives safely on the straight stretches, and gets slightly maniacal at the stop lights. It’s obviously bothering him. I have no idea what he’s looking for.

“Can I light a cigarette? (I think he wants the nicotine to calm down.)

. . . I think when we stopped at the stoplight, there was so much noise, I thought he had paid me . . . he said thanks, and then he just left . . .

. . . I can’t find it, I can’t find the 20 sole note . . .

Did he pay me? I’m thinking now he didn’t . . .

. . . there’s just some bad people in the world, you know? just some bad people out there, dishonest, crooks.

Do you mind if I light another cigarette? (he puts the lighter in the driver-side door and takes out a map, a book, and a bunch of brochures.)

. . . ugh, that was like almost an hour . . . for nothing . . . he rests his elbow on the window sill and puts his hand on his forehead

20 soles! that’s like two or three taxi rides. (US $6.50)

I can’t believe it . . . 20 soles!”


I have to take taxi’s a lot here in Lima. I pay around 6 soles to get to most places (about $2.00) which takes about 10-15 minutes. Most taxi drivers fight to get passengers. They race around the corners, cutting each other off, often times putting pedestrians or their future clients in harms way.

Two or three taxi rides is probably more than an hours work all told. To fight to be first, to take almost any passenger to almost any destination, (except the ones where the expense would dilute any profits,) consume the costly fuel, deliver the client safely to their destination, and to battle the horrendous Lima traffic – that’s painful. Time lost, money lost, yeah, those are tough, but to be cheated – that hurts deep inside.

I know people put on an act to squeeze more money out of a traveler, but usually the charade wears out and the reality seeps in. I spent about 15 minutes in his car.

“Keep the change, I’m sorry that someone cheated you.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah, go ahead. Have a good night sir.”

“Really? You’re ok with that? . . . Wow . . . Seriously? . . .

. . . (chattering in disbelief) . . .

. . . I prayed for work, I just prayed for more work after I lost the money . . . just two or three taxi rides to make up for what I lost . . .

I think you were sent! I think you were an answer to prayer. Thank you sir, God Bless you.”


The change I left with him was just 1/2 a taxi ride more than the fare he quoted me.

That’s how much a dollar means to some people.

Ride it Out: Make Good Decisions on Which Bus You Plan to Board

I’ve ridden hundreds of buses during my time in Latin America. I stopped counting a couple years ago because it became such a part of my life that I didn’t even think about it. What I haven’t forgotten though, are the times that I’ve gotten on a bus that was headed to the wrong destination. (The dramatic irony here is that the bus was not wrong in it’s course to a  destination, but I was) Whether it was Guatemala, Nicaragua, or the Dominican Republic, there were many times when I had been nervously sitting in a seat waiting for my stop to come, and it never would. Then I would ask the conductor or the attendant and they would seal my fate and say to me, “This bus does not stop there. You’ll have to get off and transfer at the next station.”buses-of-guatemala-3

There a few things less enjoyable than realizing that you got on the wrong bus and you are now headed in a direction you don’t want to go, and you cannot get off. You try and protest, and ask them to let you off, but it’s a highway, it’s dark, and you don’t know where you are. They aren’t going to put you a situation you don’t belong, (even though that’s what you’ve done to yourself); they are going to take care of their passenger. You’ll just have to ride it out.

A similar phrase in English is, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” meaning you have to take responsibility for where you’ve put yourself and the decisions you’ve made. I feel like there’s a bit of injustice considering the effects of this phrase. Many times the passenger is innocent and only has with them an intention to get to a destination, and now they are not only delayed, but their safety is in jeopardy. That’s hardly the idea behind someone needing to take responsibility for their actions. But as I’ve seen time and again in my travels, it’s not necessarily a question of justice or injustice, it’s more about ignorance versus knowledge, a choice of bus routes and ignorance stings whether or not you know better.

I had seen a movie about Mexican drug trafficking awhile ago, but because of it’s explicit content, I would wait until it comes out on TV if you have a desire to see it, but anyway it had an interesting quote that I’ll copy here:

“I would urge you to see the truth of the situation you’re in, Counselor. That is my advice. It is not for me to tell you what you should have done or not done. The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you made is different from the world where the mistakes were made. You are now at the crossing. And you want to choose, but there is no choosing there. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago… Are you there Counselor?”

I find that sometimes I am much like the counselor here, trying to go back in time to retrace my steps and un-make the decision that I made a short while ago, but like it’s referenced in this quote, the consequences of a decision take place in a world that is different than in which they were made. There is no going back, there is only accepting the current situation, and waiting until the next stop to get off.

I think about this “permanence” of consequences when I visit some of these communities in Lima where we hope to pursue the extension of our microlending program to schools. Are these schools, these communities, these children on a bus route in which they can only switch seats but they cannot get off? Or can we change the destination?

More of what you want and Less of what you don’t

Any self-help guru will tell you that in order to really succeed at any life goal you must set goals and focus on them. Pretty simple right? What if you have like 15 goals?

If there’s one thing you probably already know about me, it’s that I have a lot of interests. I’m always onto something new, and honestly, I pride myself on it. I was always a curious child and read a variety of subjects in books and found myself repairing, or better said, destroying items that my brother and I had found at a local garage sale. I never felt that I could satiate my curiosity and for that I moved onto different sports, different types of music, and one day dreamed of travel. After all, travel is curiosity, and curiosity is travel.

I suppose my curious streak continued through high-school as I played basketball, cross-country and soccer, and joined a few clubs. Then onto college it continued with my choice of electives as I took courses on linguistics, ethics, psychology and economics. Well, I guess we are all curious in college right? That’s the time to study everything. To explore what you’ve never been able to grasp a hold of with people who are similarly intellectually inclined. Fortunately, I had friends who were not just intellectuals but pragmatists, and urged me to write down the things that I really wanted to accomplish.

I started out last year with a sheet of written goals. Maybe there’s 15 that include things like cooking and surfing, and then the crucial ones like Spanish and technical writing. And you know what? I had been spreading myself too thing across all these subjects.


I’m focusing on catching more sunsets.

I realized that if I was ever going to make progress, I was going to have to focus on just a few things, the most crucial. I suppose it all boils down to a simple phase: “Do more of what you want and less of what you don’t.” Good phrase right? If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that talk is cheap. Really cheap. We can all say we’ll do something, learn something, or be somewhere at a specified time, but unless these words are converted into daily practices, they simply remain as dead words.

I Was Fluent in About a Week

Ok, so one week later and I don’t feel any closer to being able to have a conversation in Portuguese. It’s interesting though. I feel like I made a small dent. Well, a really small dent. Ok, now the more I think about it, it’s barely noticable. But at the time it felt like I was making a real impact. At the time I felt like I was getting into a groove. I felt like I could totally run with a conversation in Brazilian Portuguese if I needed to.Fluency-means what you think it means

It reminds me of an incredibly common conversation I’ll have with travelers who are just starting out on their journey with Spanish, or have done a few trips into Spanish speaking countries in the past. They’ll describe a week at a resort or a hotel, and they’ll say, “Well yeah, by the end of it I was fluent!”

In reality, I can only imagine what it was like for the native Spanish speaker and the amount of effort they had to put forth to understand the individual and help them out. Probably the conversation was mostly Spanglish with a few Spanish-like words sprinkled in. They say in communication that it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what was understood. So to borrow the meme from Inigo Montoya of the 1987 film Princess Bride, “Fluency. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

What I think happens is that during the process, or during the experience, our senses get activated to a new world, and with every step of success we feel energized and motivated. We feel like we are really picking up momentum, really connecting with the individual, and with every affirmative nod of the head, every smile, and every confirmation to a question, we float a little higher into the language atmosphere. It’s so easy to float in it, because learning a language is a social experience and when we share this new learning initiative with another, we naturally are spurred on.

What’s interesting for me is that I feel like I really now know what it takes to become fluent, and for me the meaning of that word had taken on a whole new meaning after a few years. I remember thinking I was “fluent” after three months in Guatemala, only to arrive in the Dominican Republic stumbling for a simple flow of conversation, heck even common words, and conjugations. Dominican Spanish (which I believe is much different than textbook Spanish), is very difficult to understand as it contains an incredible amount of stylistic shortcuts and slang that is native to the country. As is often the case with Spanish accents from the Carribean, it really takes an ear for it, and requires many months, ok to be fair, a couple of years to feel comfortable.
Learning a language takes a lot of work and it’s a sizable commitment. It’s almost like someone asking you to carry something for them as you’re headed out the house. The load is heavy at first, gets easier after awhile, then it changes shape, you get really tired, you lose hope, but somehow you get motivated again. You get some rest, and start out again, but its even heavier this time, but strangely it’s lighter than ever before. Many people come join you on the journey, and then people come along and show you how to carry it. They take some stuff out, show you how to distribute the weight, tell you to put some things on, and after awhile, you don’t even know you’re carrying it, you somehow just wear it, and don’t even have to think about having to put it on.

Then it’s a part of you, it’s a part of your life, and then you really can’t imagine living without it. I think then and only then, you start to understand fluency.

Forever Vacation

I hear from time to time people explaining to me that they’d love to do what I’d do, but without the “work” part. Like they’d want to quit their job and just travel. Explore all the destinations they’ve dreamed about, and be a part of another life. Others want to finish their career and just sit on a beach. Be forever on vacation living at the beach. lonely-planet-peruSounds grand, doesn’t it?

I always reply, “Well, you could do that, but honestly, I don’t think you’d be happy.”

Why not?

I think an intrinsic part of happiness is knowing that you’re connected to something of great value and that you, this body and mind you control, are directly contributing to this value. Traveling can feel like a spectator sport after awhile.

Ask anyone who’s been on the traveling circuit for more than a few months and you’ll hear things like. “I really just want a warm shower.” “I have hundreds of pictures of cathedrals, I can’t tell them apart.” “I miss the pizza/salads/desserts/pasta from back home.” “Why isn’t there any wifi?” “I miss my friends.” “I miss a regular schedule.”

When you make the transition from a normal life schedule to one of traveling, it’s bliss for a short period, but then a reality sets in that you didn’t expect. One reason you set out to travel was that these exotic destinations were not your regular reality, but you never thought that you’d want to return home for precisely that same reason.

Besides the obvious impediment of finances, travelers realize you can’t travel forever. Many of the travelers I’ve met got burnt out from the traveling because the feelings and excitement just before the initial launch from their home country eventually faded away. That propellant fuel can’t propel you forever; you eventually need to find a more durable source of motivation, something that continues burning after the initial batch of launch fuel does its job.

Meaning is the fuel for life, whether you travel abroad or invest in your local community.

More on that later, but for now, here’s a talk from Steve Jobs I enjoyed: